It’s been one of the longest and largest construction projects in the making at UC San Diego.
But on April 8, UCSD’s vision of a new comprehensive cancer center will finally become a reality after eight years of planning.
That day, UCSD will open the 270,000-square-foot, $105 million Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center.
“The first phase will open on April 8, with different aspects opening in phases over the next few months,” said Nancy Stringer, a spokeswoman for the Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center.
Stringer couldn’t say how many people will move into the building on April 8 or what the upcoming phases will entail.
She said the facility will accommodate outpatient clinical services, laboratory space, cancer prevention and community outreach activities.
One of the most exciting aspects is the union of more than 275 physicians and scientists who were scattered across the La Jolla university’s campus under one roof, said Dr. Dennis Carson, who directs the cancer center.
“The building is shaped into a V , one side is for clinical (work), the other is for research, (both) connecting clinical and research physicians,” said Carson, a physician-scientist. “It also has 50 infusion beds where patients can get radiation, intravenous (therapies) and experimental therapies.”
The cancer center’s chief mission, as Carson sees it, is to marry innovative ideas with the resources of venture capitalists and San Diego-based biotechnology companies.
“We see ourselves as a hub that serves the UCSD community, but also the larger biotechnology and pharmaceutical community that will ultimately benefit patients,” he said.
The biotechnology industry likely welcomes it.
“We’re excited whenever one of our institutes expands,” said Joseph Panetta, president and chief executive of Biocom, San Diego’s trade group for the life sciences industry. “UCSD’s translational medicine approach will help get therapies into the hands of the patients that need them.”
Facilitating the intricacies associated with translating basic science to the patient is the center’s advisory board, made up of biotechnology executives, attorneys and venture capital financiers.
Carson, who is 58 years old and lives in La Jolla, knows what it takes.
An established immunologist and cancer biologist, Carson has lifted several of his own ideas out of research institutions, including the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, into the realm of venture-backed biotech companies.
Among his successes are two San Diego-based biotech companies.
Salmedix Inc. tests an experimental therapy in patients with blood cancer.
Vical Inc. tests an experimental skin cancer therapy.
While the verdict is still out on whether these drugs will see the light of day, a leukemia drug that originated in Carson’s laboratory in the 1980s did win Food and Drug Administration marketing approval in 1993, he said.
Carson hopes that UCSD cancer researchers will produce similar successes.
As one of only 38 comprehensive cancer centers nationwide, the UCSD cancer center is already prestigious. But Carson doesn’t want to draw comparisons to the other centers.
“If we want to make this work, we’re not duplicating what the other centers are doing, but creating something different,” Carson said.
Besides developing new clinical programs and drugs targeting multiple types of cancers, scientists will also try to develop new diagnostic tools, such as blood tests, that can help doctors with early detection of cancers.
Scientists will also focus on finding better ways to monitor patients’ diseases and prevent the spread of cancers.
“We will have a medicinal chemistry group of 30 people who will synthesize new agents using computer technology and test them in animal models,” Carson said.
He also wants to create tumor and patient registries and develop imaging tools that he said will be useful for cancer companies.
Besides offering this service, Carson also wants drug makers to turn to the center to run their clinical trials.
“We can interact with them here rather than them using clinical research organizations (that specialize in that type of work),” he said.
Carson said he’s eager to work with biotech companies and pharmaceutical giants, including Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer, which have established a research presence in San Diego.
“We don’t want biotech companies to go outside of San Diego,” Carson said.
The effort to draw corporate partnerships is part of a larger UCSD plan.
Carson doesn’t like to talk about the economic benefits to the university. He prefers talking about the benefits to patients instead.
But the reality is, research universities faced with diminishing access to federal funding to support their basic research now actively promote academic-corporate partnerships as a way to drive economic development.
Universities don’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to develop a drug themselves and bring it to market.
But when their company partners succeed in turning an invention into a marketable product, universities profit through royalties and company stock.
UCSD’s vice chancellor of health sciences, Dr. Edward Holmes, has created three vehicles to speed up the translation of science for clinical use.
In 2001, he created a program that focuses on linking scientists’ inventions for licensing opportunities with an institute to bring compounds back to the university for testing.
Another program, dubbed “TransMed,” short for translational medicine, links scientists’ best ideas with venture capital financiers.
The newest program, PharmaStart, is a continuation of the same ideas with the UC campuses of San Diego, San Francisco and Berkeley and the nonprofit research institute SRI International of Menlo Park.